Seven years ago, Travel Weekly and the New Yorker magazine cosponsored a consumer survey about travelers' attitudes, and during the presentation of results, I moderated a panel that included Doug Fyfe, then of the Canadian Tourism Commission.
Fyfe is known for his wit as well as his insight, and when he first spoke, he thanked me for sending him the questions in advance. "But unlike Bob Whitley," he added with a smile, "you didn't also send the answers."
The comment was good-natured. Whitley, the president of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, who passed away earlier this month, was in the audience, and joined in the laughter. But Fyfe's joke also held a kernel of truth.
Association leaders come in many stripes. At one end of the spectrum, they are little more than ventriloquist dummies, taking direction from their board of directors and adding little or nothing to the conversation. Their pronouncements tend to be predictable.
Many, perhaps most, are good communicators who work effectively behind the scenes as mediators, seeking common ground among a membership with diverse and conflicting interests.
Bob was of a third kind. When he met with his membership, he sought out opinion and was a good listener, but as Fyfe implied, he didn't just ask questions; he often provided the answers.
His position as the longest-tenured industry association president was facilitated, in part, by the nature of the sector in which he was involved. Tour operations are, for the most part, family businesses. Their executives are independent of pressures felt by public companies or quasigovernmental agencies like CVBs or tourist boards. Their thinking is unimpaired by concerns about share price or whether an election will change the course of their operating philosophy.
Having built their own businesses, and answering primarily to themselves, they're more inclined to trust their gut, understand the importance of relationships, value loyalty and hard work and measure progress against long-term goals.
In an atmosphere such as this, a man with Bob Whitley's leadership skills thrived, and his association prospered.
It's hard to overstate the level of trust and mutual affection that existed not only between Bob and his membership but between Bob and the broader travel industry. At the reception following his memorial service last week, almost everyone I spoke with related a story about how Bob had helped them out. Though the narratives invariably involved their businesses, these were told as personal stories.
Take a look at the comments under the article about his passing and you will see dozens of testimonials from people whom he had mentored or to whom he had offered important advice or guidance at a critical point in their careers.
Bob Whitley was a remarkable man, and the industry's loss is great. A common sentiment that was expressed at the memorial reception was that it will be difficult for any person who follows him, given Bob's remarkable achievements.
I don't think that's necessarily so. Part of his legacy is that he left what he accomplished intact: a unified organization of people who understand and value relationships and, importantly, a broader community in the industry that feels it is part of the USTOA family.
As for a succession plan, Bob was a long-term thinker. He demonstrated the qualities and skills anyone who follows him should possess: intelligence, warmth, charisma, passion and the boldness to lead. By example, he has once again provided his membership with the answer to an important question before them.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.